‘Forgive our sins as we forgive’, you taught us, Lord, to pray;
but you alone can grant us grace to live the words we say.
How can your pardon reach and bless the unforgiving heart
that broods on wrongs and will not let old bitterness depart?
In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus makes a connection between receiving and giving forgiveness. He taught us to pray, “Forgive us our sins, as we also forgive those who sin against us.”
Jesus followed the prayer with more teaching about forgiveness: “If you forgive others when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” (Matt 6:9-15)
So you and I must decide to forgive, and – because forgiveness is hard – we must learn the discipline of forgiveness. Then we have to practice, and practice and practice again, until forgiveness becomes a spiritual and emotional habit.
This is not just a challenge for individual Christians, it’s a challenge to the whole Church:
A Church that proclaims that its God is a God of love and forgiveness must show its own people how to be loving and forgiving.
So what is forgiveness?
As Richard Rohr says, Forgiveness is simply the religious word for letting go.
Last week, I gave a few illustrations of our common need to let go – but my examples were of those petty things we all tend to hold onto. This morning, I think I can best illustrate what forgiveness is by telling you a very painful story.
Years ago a woman came to me and, over many weeks, poured out her heart. She was burdened, even haunted, by painful memories and of unremitting anger, sorrow, and guilt. The weight of those memories, the burden of these feelings, had now grown too great to bear.
In her younger years she had been married, and she had two children. Now she was divorced, her children had grown up and were living their own lives, and her former husband had moved far away.
Every divorce causes pain, and stirs deep anger, sorrow and guilt. Yet this woman’s feelings and her guilt went much deeper than most – because after the divorce her children had told her that, when they were in their early teens, they had been sexually abused by their father.
She felt overwhelming anger at her former husband – when she first heard her children’s story, and still more years later. What could she do with the rage she experienced?
She felt deep sorrow for her children – when she first heard what had happened, and still carried this sorrow years later. What could she do to repair the damage done to them?
And most of all, she felt guilty – when she first heard what happened, and ever more deeply through the years that followed.
Surely, she should have seen something? Surely, surely, she should have known what was happening?
Finally, because of her pain and especially because of her guilt, I suggested we turn to the Rite of Reconciliation in the Book of Common Prayer, thinking that the words of Scripture, and the Prayer Book liturgy itself, would bring her comfort and peace.
Confession – the Rite of Reconciliation – was new to our current Prayer Book in those years. We say the General Confession almost every Sunday, but the personal rite of Confession is still an unfamiliar part of the Prayer Book to most Episcopalians. (It would not be stretching the truth too much to say that Episcopalians may be more familiar with Confession from the movies – Roman Catholics going to Confession – than we are from our own lives.)
So let’s look at the Rite of Reconciliation together.
The Reconciliation of a Penitent
Book of Common Prayer, p. 450-451
The Penitent says
Holy God, heavenly father, you formed me from the dust in your image and likeness, and redeemed me from sin and death by the cross of your Son Jesus Christ. Through the water of baptism you clothed me with the shining garment of his righteousness, and established me among your children in your kingdom. But I have squandered the inheritance of your saints, and have wandered far in a land that is waste.
Especially, I confess to you and to the Church….
Here the penitent confesses particular sins.
Therefore, O Lord, from these and all other sins I cannot now remember, I turn to you in sorrow and repentance. Receive me again into the arms of your mercy, and restore me to the blessed company of your faithful people; through him in whom you have redeemed the world, your Son our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
The Priest may then offer words of comfort and counsel.
We talked quietly together until she indicated she was ready to move on.
Priest Will you turn again to Christ as your Lord?
Penitent I will.
Priest Do you, then, forgive those who have sinned against you?
She put down her prayer book and cried out, “No!”
“No,” she said again, “No! Maybe now I can finally forgive myself, but I still can’t forgive him!”
How do we forgive the unforgivable?
As the weeks went on, we continued to talk. We read Scripture together: Jesus’ words on forgiveness to his disciples; Jesus’ words of forgiveness from the cross. We prayed together: the Prayer of St. Francis, the Lord’s Prayer. And then one week she finally was able to say to me, “I think I’m ready. I can finish the Confession now.” She said,
I’ve realized that I have to let go of him. I have to stop thinking of him all the time. I have to get him out of my mind, out of my heart, out of my gut. He’s tied to me like the heaviest rock in the world. I need to be free.
When I first tried to forgive him, all I could do was to mouth the words, “I’m letting him go…. I’m letting him go….” Then when he came back into my mind, I said it again and again. I know I will always feel pain over this, but now I can decide to let go all over again when old thoughts come back.
Forgiveness is letting him go, and forgiveness is letting myself go. Forgiveness is not a feeling, it is a decision, and I can make it a habit. Every time I feel tempted to hold onto my anger, my own guilt, my desire for revenge, I can decide to let go.
I am so thankful that this amazing woman came into my life. In the years after I first knew her, I watched her go from strength to strength – personally and professionally.
In the years since that powerful Confession, I’ve also learned that there are connections between justice and forgiveness, but they’re not the ones we’re looking for:
Forgiveness is not pretending that nothing is wrong. It is not accepting injustice.
Forgiveness is simply cutting the ties of resentment and bitterness that hold us down.
Once we are freed from those painful ties, then perhaps we can find energy for justice.
Next week: forgiveness and justice